Stung by spy case, FBI chief says security being tightened

Independent report expected to reveal serious flaws in agency

April 04, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said yesterday that the bureau will give more agents polygraph tests, delve deeper into agents' financial records and tighten access to its computer systems in response to the devastating damage caused by Robert P. Hanssen, the FBI agent turned Russian spy.

Mueller outlined the plans in advance of an independent report on the matter that could be released as soon as today. The report is expected to be highly critical, revealing serious security flaws throughout the agency. It is the product of a 13-month review led by William H. Webster, a former director of both the FBI and the CIA.

The bureau has undergone changes in recent months, including creation of an internal security division and giving polygraph tests to more than 700 agents who deal with sensitive information.

But Mueller and other agency officials said much security still needs to be added. The weakest links include a lack of centralized security and the bureau's aging computer system, which lacks the ability to issue alerts when people without authorization review files or print them out.

Officials noted that Hanssen exploited lax computer security in gathering files for Moscow.

Mueller came into office with a mandate to shore up security after the tenure of Louis J. Freeh.

Under Freeh, critics have charged, lenient security policies allowed Hanssen's spying to go undetected for years.

The bureau says the overhaul of its computer network will include a new case management system. In addition to eliminating a dependence on paper files, the new system will enable tracking of any unauthorized access.

Mueller and other bureau officials dismissed a suggestion, expected to be raised in the report, to end the practice of granting all agents top security clearances.

He also said he was still considering how far to expand the practice of polygraphing, though he said about 1,000 more employees who handle sensitive material will undergo lie-detector tests.

The tests, Mueller cautioned, can categorize some otherwise honest agents as "indeterminants" or unreadable, depending on the quality of the examiner or the questions asked.

Polygraph tests in recent months of about seven of 700 agents tested - a fraction of the bureau's 11,000 agents - "raised issues," Mueller said, and require further scrutiny.

"A balance is necessary to ensure we never again have another Hanssen," he said, but the bureau also must "show we trust our employees."

"Nobody likes taking a polygraph," Mueller said. "I didn't like taking the polygraph. But I think we all understand the necessity."

Unlike other intelligence agencies that require regular testing, such as the National Security Agency, the FBI has avoided widespread use of polygraphs. Only in the mid-1990s did the agency begin requiring one-time polygraph testing of new agents. Many agents in the bureau have never been tested.

During the past few months, the FBI has sought the advice of other intelligence agencies on polygraphing and on how to require more in-depth financial disclosure statements. Mueller said the agency plans more stringent monitoring to ensure that those statements are accurate.

Given a superior polygraphing system, a computer system with security controls and reviews of financial records, top agency officials said yesterday that they believe Hanssen would have been caught years before he was.

Hanssen, who has cooperated with the agency and has answered questions from investigators working on the report, pleaded guilty last year to 15 counts of espionage-related charges in order to avoid the death penalty. He was charged with selling secrets to Moscow over a span of two decades in exchange for $1.4 million.

The Los Angeles Times, citing sources who have seen the report, reported yesterday that Hanssen was motivated by the need for money to cover house payments and private school expenses for his six children.

Kenneth H. Senser, a CIA agent who is working as an assistant FBI director in charge of the new internal security division, said he was "shocked" by the poor security when he took over his post.

Senser said the agency had "no culture for security" and the programs it did have were spread over eight departments.

Security within the FBI, Senser said, was considered secondary to an agent's primary job duties. In addition, he said, security posts have not been considered a career track in the way that white-collar criminal investigation or counter-terrorism has been.

Senser suggested that those lapses created an environment that allowed Hanssen to pore through computer systems and files unchecked and then copy those files.

"The kinds of things Hanssen did were not hacking," Senser said. "He didn't have to use passwords. He had access. There were no controls. Basically, he got in there and did a lot of surfing."

That environment also allowed Hanssen to walk out the agency's front door with secret documents and computer disks, Senser said. He was arrested in February 2001.

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